Otto Von Stroheim, Keeper of the Sacred [Tiki] Torch
As far as this story is concerned, the origins of the Tiki culture began at 6500 San Pablo Ave., Oakland. It was at this now-empty lot that Victor Bergeron first opened Hinky Dinks, a cozy little saloon serving “exotic drinks.” After a trip abroad, the Tiki spirits descended upon him, and Mr. Bergeron re-branded himself as “Trader Vic,” in the process changing the design, decór, and ethos of his bar into a Polynesian paradise, with a strong focus on rum-based cocktails mixed with exotic spices and herbs, and equallly exotic and romantic names.
From these humble origins the Tiki craze grew into a national and then global phenomenon, peaking in the late fifties before dying an ignominous death in the early seventies, with once-classic drinks like the daiquri and the mai tai reduced to mechanically churned unnaturaly blue and red atrocities.
Today, thanks in part to a renewed interest in hand-crafted cocktails and a focus on reviving once-lost recipes, the spirit of Tiki has resurfaced, with the Bay Area becoming home to several true Tiki establishments (more on that later). Even before this rum-soaked resurgence, however, several brave souls strived to keep the Tiki torches burning: authors and historians Sven Kirsten and Jeff Berry, artists like Shag and Robert Williams (and the magazine Juxtapoz, which celebrated their artwork), and Bay Area’s own (via Los Angeles) Otto Von Stroheim. (Okay, we also need to give a shoutout to Will “The Thrill” Vicaro — RIP Thrillsville at the Parkway Theatre.)
Author, DJ, ex-magazine publisher, and promoter Otto Von Stroheim got his start publishing his Tiki (bar) travel memoirs in his magazine, Tiki News (1995 - 2001). In 1994 Otto began DJing and hosting Tiki events such as “Exoticon,” the first Tiki/Exotica music festival. In 1996, Otto teamed with L.A.’s La Luz de Jesus Gallery to launch “21st Century Tiki,” the world’s first group Tiki art exhibit in a real gallery. He has also appeared on local and national radio, including NPR’s “California Report.” Along with his wife Baby Doe, Otto is the co-curator of “Tiki Oasis,” the first and largest Tiki convention in the world. And, he still finds time to DJ once a month at Forbidden Island, in Alameda.
We caught up with Otto to talk more about the renweed Tiki interest, his involvement in it (yesterday, today, and tomorrow), and, if he had a friend coming into town tomorrow and only twelve hours, which area Tiki bars would be on the not-to-miss list.
What got you first interested in the Tiki lifestyle — do you remember your first tiki drink?
I was lucky to have lived on the Westside during the last days of Kelbo’s in West Los Angeles. I worked at the newspaper in Santa Monica and lived in Venice so Kelbo’s was almost on the way home: Any time co-workers wanted to celebrate a birthday I always suggested Kelbo’s, even though the drinks were horrible.
Trader Vic’s, Beverly Hills was where I had my first real Tiki drinks. They were good but cost twice as much as drinks at a regular bar. But I didn’t really know and appreciate Tiki drinks until I met Jeff Berry and he made me a real drink at his house, and then we went to Madame Wu’s in Santa Monica and had Don the Beachcomber drinks made by Tony Ramos.
We’re experiencing a Tiki renaissance in the Bay Area. What do you think is behind it?
The Bay Area has a sophisticated and discerning drinking audience. They are willing to support a quality establishment and pay the proper price for a proper drink.
Tiki bars are popular when the weather is warm because it makes people think of the islands; they are even more popular when it is cold because people want to escape to the islands. The Bay Area is cold, and that’s why Tiki is hot here.
Why are there no Tiki bars in the North Bay?
There was a short-lived Tiki bar in downtown Fairfax started by singer Vice Grip called The Bamboo Bar. In the heyday of Tiki there was Tiburon Tommie’s and Barney West had his Tiki carving business roadside in Sausalito. The Beats and bohemians and hippies don’t really dig the Tiki scene though, and that’s why no new Tiki bars have sprung up in the North Bay.
There are over forty Tiki-style bars listed in Google for the Bay Area: What rule of thumb do you use to differentiate between what is bad, and worth visiting?
A Tiki bar is all about the ambiance. A Tiki drink well made can tickle your taste buds, but it must be experienced in an escapist atmosphere in order to truly transport you away from the daily bustle of the city.
What’s your go-to cocktail at home?
The Daiquiri is the perfect tropical cocktail. It is minimalist, like a martini, and it’s balance is fragile yet forgiving. It allows a lot of experimentation and variation among it’s three basic ingredients: Lime (more or less? Key Lime or Mexican limes?), sugar (Simple syrup? Honey syrup? Turbinado sugar? Demerara sugar?), and rum.A Tiki bar is all about the ambiance. A Tiki drink well made can tickle your taste buds, but it must be experienced in an escapist atmosphere in order to truly transport you away from the daily bustle of the city.